crème brûlée is a sweet egg-yolk custard made with cream. The cream, egg yolk, and sugar mixture is cooked, poured into individual ramekins, poached in a bain-marie (hot water bath), and then chilled. When the custard is firm, the top is covered with a layer of sugar that is browned by means of a salamander, broiler or butane torch (brûlé means “burnt” in French), forming a hard, caramelized crust on the surface.
The dessert is ubiquitous on restaurant menus today in the United States and in Europe, but its history is anything but straightforward. The English, French, and Catalonians all lay claim to the origin of the dessert. Many have attributed the creation of crème brûlée to the kitchens of Trinity College, Cambridge University in the nineteenth century, but this cannot be true. Although custards topped with caramelized sugar appeared in eighteenth-century English cookbooks, notably John Nott’s Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (1723), the origin of the recipe in print appears to be French. The British food writer Elizabeth David traced Nott’s recipe for “Burnt Cream” to François Massialot’s Crème Brûlée in Cuisinier royal et bourgeois (1691). The English translation of Massialot’s book, The Court and Country Cook (1702), includes the crème brûlée recipe as “Burnt Cream.” Unless a seventeenth-century precedent is found, Massialot seems to have been first in English as well as in French. This early recipe calls for milk, not cream, and the custard bakes in an oven, not a bain-marie. Massialot neglects to tell the cook to add sugar in the cooking stage, but refers to the sugar in the custard later in the recipe. If the omission was a mistake, it was never corrected.